Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Red Canyon; Fossils and Silence

Red Canyon; Fossils and Silence

or: How not publishing data hurt fossil protection in the fight for Bears Ears National Monument

Some Background

          Okay everybody, gather 'round. Time for Uncle Rob to tell the story of Red Canyon. It is a magical place, with soaring red walls and seemingly endless badlands. Rocks from the Middle Triassic through the Early Jurassic are exposed in its depths, and numerous historic uranium mines, roads, and artifacts. Gorgeous, desolate, and isolated, Red Canyon is truly an amazing location and was rightly included in the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition's proposal for a Bears Ears National Monument. It was specifically excluded under Rep. Rob Bishop's Public Lands Initiative and was also dropped from the final Bears Ears National Monument boundaries.
Bears Ears National Monument Map - Department of the Interior
          Besides the odd isolate on the west side of the map (just east of Lake Powell), the Red Canyon/Moqui Canyon stretch of high deserts, plateaus, and canyons is not protected within the Monument boundaries. Why might that be? One reason is likely Energy Fuels' Daneros Mine, located in upper Red Canyon. The other reason might have something to do with paleontological discoveries that are more like tech "vaporware" than hard science at the moment.

Paleontology in Red Canyon

          I am not going to dwell long on current, ongoing projects in Red Canyon headed up by my friends and colleagues that have started in the last couple of years. For one that would be unfair and unethical since they are investing time and energy into their discoveries. For another, everyone involved in research in Red Canyon currently has a solid record of publishing their work. I am confident that any new discoveries that come out of the Red Canyon area will be properly published in the scientific literature.
          This is a tough subject to write about because the core of the issue are fossils that have never been published. This whole story exists, however, because these fossils have never been published. So I will not name institutions or people involved. I won't even really describe these fossils in any sort of detail because that would be inappropriate. Nonetheless, these fossils existence is known within the small community of paleontologists who work on the Triassic Period in western North America. The most famous are some small reptile skeletons, but other specimens played a role in this story. These specimens are far more interesting than I let on here but I don't want to say much more because the fossils are still undescribed. These reptile skeletons were discovered first back in either the 1960s or 1970s (depending on who is telling the story). They went to a museum back east where they have set ever since. They have been prepared, they have been seen by dozens of visiting researchers, and although they are remarkable they have never been described in a formal publication (or even in the "grey literature" as far as anyone seems to know). A couple of other scientific publications have come out of work done in Red Canyon but they were not describing anything new, unique, or spectacular for the most part: crocodylomorph scutes, phytosaur bones and teeth, etc. (Parrish and Good, 1987; Parrish, 1999). Not to say that these aren't important to document but they don't carry the scientific significance of a new species, for example.

Red Canyon on the Chopping Block

So why does this matter? Well, as I mentioned in my last blog post, I was asked to provide bibliographies of the paleontological and geological resources of the Bears Ears area. I was also eventually asked to go to Washington DC and present that information (and more) in person. I had produced, along with some of the conservation groups who I had been in contact with, a map highlighting several things. A modified version of this map is reproduced below.
Map of the Bears Ears Area before monument designation. Geologic data from Utah Geological Survey database.
          This map outlined both the Utah Public Lands Initiative and the Inter-Tribal Coalition's proposals, and overlaid both areas of known paleontological resources (red hashes in 1. Red Canyon, 2. Valley of the Gods, 3. Comb Ridge, and 4. Indian Creek) and areas pulled from the Utah Geological Survey's online public geologic map database showing where the fossil-rich Chinle and Morrison Formations are exposed (in green). This was done to highlight the potential for new discoveries in this region that has not been systematically explored by paleontologists. This is where I ran head-on into the realities of the wheels of power looking at the various conservation options. Anyone who says that this was a sort of midnight "swoop" into southeastern Utah without considering all the factors doesn't know how these proceedings work.

Publications Count

          This is probably the best "real-world" example of why publishing your finds matter. It might not be a priority to you. It might be a pain, it might take more time than you want, it might get caught up in the chaos of a job change or move. It doesn't matter; publish what you find. Is it all going to be flashy? Hell no. Does it provide useful data for your future colleagues or students in 10, 20, 50, 150 years? It sure does. Perhaps most broadly applicable here, does it provide people outside the science entirely with something solid to point to when trying to decide on the "value" of the land? You better believe it. Without anything concrete to point to about the nationally significant scientific value of Red Canyon, when lawmakers, bureaucrats, and administration officials asked how I could show the area needed protection I couldn't respond. At the Department of the Interior I was repeatedly asked to support my claims that paleontology needed to be protected and what areas were most significant. There are publications, preprints, and abstracts to support the scientific value of Indian Creek, Comb Ridge, and Valley of the Gods. There was nothing to point to for Red Canyon.
          This also brings up a point that my friend Jim has raised on Facebook. The proclamation language heavily favors the Triassic fossils from the region. Part of this is likely due to some of my experience bias creeping in; I mainly work in the Triassic. The majority of that, however, comes again from the published record. While there are hundreds (thousands?) of acres of Middle Mesozoic sediments exposed in the Bears Ears area (see the map above), almost nothing has been published on fossils from those sediments in the Bears Ears. Comparatively the Late Paleozoic and Early Mesozoic comprise the vast majority of the published record for the region. In meetings with the DoI, again, I was essentially told that knowing that something might be out there is nice, the government can't set aside this land from all other purposes based on a possibility. In setting up proclamation language we didn't ignore mid-Mesozoic finds; those projects have either been sidelined, ignored, or not started by our own profession in favor of work elsewhere. And I recognize that it is a tough balancing act. My work in Bears Ears has meant I haven't been following up on leads in other places. We all only have so much time, energy, and funding.


          Would scientists publishing in the 80s or 90s on the Red Canyon reptile material have made a difference? Would Red Canyon now be part of Bears Ears National Monument had these reptiles (and other, more recent but unpublished finds) become part of the published scientific record? That's a what-if game that has no right answer; its inclusion would still have to fight against powerful interests looking to preserve uranium mining in Red Canyon. I do know that it couldn't have hurt and its absence was the weakest point by far in all my efforts to get paleontology covered under a BENM or any legislative action. We shouldn't be publishing for solely political cynicism but sitting on scientifically significant fossils for 40-50 years should not be considered normal or acceptable. This is especially true in this age of rapid, rigorous peer review and digital publication. Sitting on specimens for that long hurts science, hurts future work in the area, and may even end up hurting the very place the fossils came from.

Works Cited

Instead of my usual works cited section here I am going to take this space to say I am going to be creating a Bears Ears Bibliography page here on the blog. This will be a core page here on the blog and will be added to as new papers either come to light or are published. They will be live-linked when possible. Expect this to go live in the first week of 2017. It will start with the bibliography I prepared for the White House so you can see (if you didn't get an e-mail from me before all of this) what I was working from. If you think something is missing and should be included after it goes live, don't hesitate to point it out!

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